The Growers for Tomorrow
Living the embodiment of a sustainable lifestyle through food
by Stephen Troiano
When I was recruited to be a part of SUSTAIN, I wasn’t a self-proclaimed eco-conscious warrior nor was I some sustainability influencer or blogger. I was a regular guy working as a bike messenger and as a cook who liked to keep himself busy, seeking any chance to express himself creatively. No end goals, just fun.
I believe that creativity comes out the most when you’re confined in a small space with limited tools and resources available. It’s more creative to be able to paint a painting with two or three colors than it is to have the whole color spectrum on your palette. The more talented photographer will make something great from a shitty camera as opposed to a photographer who uses the best and most expensive technology. I guess that’s why I decided to write for the food section of SUSTAIN in the first place, part of it to serve as a learning experience for myself as I further explore how food and sustainability are tied together. Anybody can write about food, but being able to do so by putting myself in that sustainable box proved to be a worthy challenge.
It started at the surface: writing about a rooftop garden at my former restaurant, exploring hydroponic farms in basements and shipping containers and profiling chefs who are strict about where their ingredients come from. All of which were touching the practice and belief of living a sustainable culinary lifestyle, but I was still looking for that all-inclusive story which would show us what it is truly all about.
I received an invitation to travel north up to Troy, the next-door neighbor to New York’s capital and home to the inventors of the 19th century removable collar (fun fact). A family friend of mine, Lynn, told me about her son who has a family of his own in Troy and that I should pay him a visit someday. She mentioned that he farmed and ran a non-profit? I forget, but if anything, it would be a nice two-day vacation from the city. The next time she and her husband, Yanni, were going up to see their son, I made sure to tag along. I firmly believe that one must leave the city limits at least two or three times a year or else they’ll lose it. Mainly, due to such things such as leaving early in the morning, 6:30am to be exact, and there’s already traffic on the Hutch.
When Lynn, Yanni and I arrived in Troy around 10am, we pulled up to Lynn’s son’s house and were greeted by Christian and his two-and-a-half-year-old son, Ember. Christian, wearing camo shorts and a camo hat containing his long, tied up black hair, greeted me with a firm handshake. There’s something about people who spend most of their time doing manual labor that gives them super strong hands. Christian was tan, tall and fit and had this four to five-inch-long black goatee hanging from his chin. Ember was excited to see his grandparents and they were excited to see him as well. The little toddler was wearing a tie-dyed shirt, no shoes and had his long, soft blonde hair tied up in a bun. You can see it in his smile he was looking forward to spending the day with his Yia Yia and Pappou.
Once Ember was taken off of his hands, Christian was now free to work for most of the day. First, he showed me around his home, which they purchased three years ago for a mere $2,000 with the intent to fix it up and pay taxes on it. They moved in a year after they bought it, which made me wonder how bad shape it used to have been in before Christian and Azuré, his partner whom I have yet to meet, decided it was time to finally occupy it. Homes such as this are common in Troy and Albany: abandoned, hallowed out and left to decay. As we drove around the city, some of these types of houses had red Xs on the side of the homes as a way to warn firefighters that, if this home were to potentially catch fire, it isn’t worth it to go inside.
Christian and Azuré’s home had come a long way. They have a side and backyard in which they had four rows of crops growing, each fifteen to twenty feet long, a clothesline, a chicken coop, wind chimes and a large three-bin composting system. Christian encouraged that if I needed to relieve myself that I do so in his compost bins instead of a toilet. According to him, “It doesn’t make sense to piss in drinkable water.”
He impressed me with how attentive he is with his environment. While we were about to walk into the house, he noticed some sawdust covering a leaf of a plant, which was enough reason for him to stop and investigate where it came from. He looked up into the doorframe, noticed a hole about the size of a dime, and stuck his finger inside of it. “Yup, carpenter bees. Gonna have to plug that with insulation.”
The inside of their house was very much their own as the only remnants of previous owners were the boxes of miscellaneous items that were left in the first floor. The living room wall was covered in old records that they found and listened to during the winter awaiting Ember's arrival. Their kitchen was a marvel of utility. Shelves of mason jars ready to use for storage, a Julia Child inspired pegboard, salvaged chairs around the kitchen table, the original sink and cabinets painted teal and a meal prep blackboard so the family could organize which ingredients to use when. The kitchen floor wasn’t made of floorboards or tiles, rather, it was created by a very—at the time—pregnant Azuré as she ripped out pages of old paperbacks found in the house, threw them on the floor and then sealed them in with polyurethane.
Christian and I were inside, talking, getting to know each other, while he was getting the supplies he needed for the day ahead of him. We found some common ground referring to our past professions as bike messengers (he currently has a side project with a friend in Troy running a pedicab business called Trojan Trikes). He received a starter kit from a friend to plant what is called the Three Sisters: corn, beans and squash. A method implemented by the Native Americans, the three form a symbiotic and supportive relationship when grown together. We loaded up the back of his Subaru with some pitchforks, soil, gardening gloves and small, sprouting, celled plants and were on our way to what he simply referred to as the Garden.
The Garden: the cornerstone of the non-profit initiative which Christian and Azuré play a large part in keeping afloat, Collard City Growers. When we first arrived, I was shocked at the size of the lot and the healthy vegetation covering essentially every square foot. It’d be impossible for me to recall all of the botanical species that exist in the Garden, so I’ll do my best. They had everything that'll grow in a temperate climate: beans, cherry tomatoes, sun flowers, sea berries, garlic chives, grapes, hops, rhubarb, zucchinis, raspberries, strawberries, kiwis, sacred basil, wormwood, anise hyssop and much, much more. They make sure that each of these plants starts out healthy by sprouting the seeds in a variety of plastic trays or pots, all salvaged or donated. This year, CCG received a donation of potting soil from Vermont Compost, the highest quality on the market. Once the sprouts outgrow their first home, they’re transplanted in the Garden. One of Christian’s main goals with this space is to plant more trees, which takes years to fully grow. From a sustainability point of view, Christian believes that trees are a great investment. Although they take time to produce results, their output exceeds other plants.
Equipped with a donated hoop-house an aquaponics system that someone kindly funded and operates for them, the Garden was a true marvel. I quickly brought up the topic of hydroponics to Christian due to the fact that hydroponics, the process of growing plants with nutrient rich water in little to no soil in a sterile environment, is a growing trend in New York City. He quickly dismissed it, drawing skepticism as to where the nutrients truly come from when using a hydroponic system as opposed to aquaponics, which uses a water tank with living fish inside to give the plants nutrient rich water.
Collard City Growers, which is an initiative from its parent non-profit organization The Sanctuary For Independent Media, manages five other gardens in North Troy that were all formerly vacant lots and works on creating a block-wide environmental campus. SFIM supports other initiatives such as the NATURE Lab, Freedom Square and WOOC 105.3 FM, a commercial free radio station tucked inside of an old building with programs such as nightly news and freeform jazz.
Christian and I finished watering the Garden for the morning and were on our way to our second stop, the Corliss community garden. Located across the street from the Corliss housing project in north Troy, this lot isn’t associated with Collard City Growers, but it provides ample space for Christian to produce more crops for him and his family as well as for Unity House, a local food pantry and kitchen providing anyone who’s hungry with a meal. On our way to Corliss, Christian pointed out to me one of the things that irks him the most about the type of society that we live in. “You see that?” as he pointed over the steering wheel. “A Family Dollar right next to a Dollar Tree.” This wasn’t an exaggeration (7 Northern Drive. Look it up.). “Who made that decision?” I couldn’t understand it either.
Once we arrived, we went right to work. Christian’s area was tucked in the back corner, as other people have plots that they tend to and use the Corliss garden for their own gardening needs. Ironically, those who live across the street from it hardly use this fertile space for gardening. We worked in the summer heat for about an hour, weeding as well as adding beans to help fertilize the Mexican corn that was already planted.
Throughout this time, I got to know Christian more. The son of Lynn and Yanni Grigoraskos and Long Island native, Christian has lived a life filled with various trades and experiences. An attendant of Chaminade High School in Mineola and a student at SUNY Plattsburgh, Christian mentioned how traditional schooling wasn’t necessarily his calling. A hands-on type of learner, he prefers to do research on his own and figuring things out by trial-and-error. Christian has been a chicken processor & butcher, a snowboard & surfer bum, a WWOOFer farmer in Australia, an apiarist, a dishwasher and a non-self-proclaimed sushi chef. His current lifestyle differs from that in which he was raised. The area of Long Island in which Christian grew up in can be characterized by shopping malls, parents taking the LIRR to and from their Midtown jobs and rows of suburban homes on streets named after trees & flowers. Considering that he wasn’t necessarily raised around green spaces or farms, it’s interesting to see how he morphed out of the environment in which he grew up.
After we finished gardening at Corliss, our next stop was to pick up Christian’s partner, Azuré, from where she was working that morning: Denison Farm. Once you leave the city limits, the surrounding area quickly transforms into a rural landscape. It explains why organic farming and sourcing where your food comes from has more importance in the small city of Troy than it does in New York City. Up here, you can drive twenty to thirty minutes in either direction and locate where your milk, your meat and your vegetables came from. We arrived at Denison and went on a scavenger hunt around the property to locate Azuré, who was apparently on her way to take a quick swim in a stream. Christian and I picked her out across a field and motioned to meet by where we parked the car. I finally got to meet the woman I heard much about, and she greeted me with a hug as if we met each other before. The three of us got in the car and headed back into town for lunch and coffee.
During the drive into town, Christian posed a question to me that, as a writer for a publication called SUSTAIN, I should have had a decent answer for. “What is the definition of sustainability?” he asked me. I wanted to hear his definition, to which he replied with an answer that was simple yet not obvious, “Anything that will create more than what it takes to produce.” No mention of specifics, just a one-size-fits-all statement that can be applied to all things besides just bio-degradable bags or cosmetics only derived from plants and minerals.
After a quick drive, we were back in civilization. We stopped for lunch at a bagel and sandwich spot called Psychedelicatessen, a Jerry Garcia inspired eatery with farm-to-table ingredients. I ordered roast beef on an everything bagel which came with a pickle. The three of us found a couple of couches to sink into and converse. This gave me some time to get to know Azuré and learn more about the world she came from.
Azuré Keahi is a mixed-race, part-Native Hawaiian and lived there until the age of twenty-three. The first of her family to graduate college (a creative writing student), Azuré wanted to branch out and find her calling elsewhere. She moved to Berkeley, California, and then found her way down to Los Angeles where her work ethic and high self-expectations pushed her to find work in luxury residence management. She said she was career-driven, focused on climbing the ladder and to make a decent salary. After a few years she wanted another change, so she moved to the east coast and found work as an assistant for a high-end furniture designer and later as a manager at The City Bakery in the Flatiron District. That’s where she met Christian, who was working as a courier for the shop. They both said that they were attracted to City Bakery for the same reasons as it was advertised on Craigslist as sustainably focused. They lived in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, together until they grew weary of the cost of city life and decided to settle down in Troy.
In addition to working at Denison Farm, Azuré works downtown at Superior Merchandise Company, a coffee shop with its own backyard and patio garden. Their garden mostly produces microgreens such as sorrel and bronze fennel for their menu. We stopped at Superior for a round of iced coffees and a chance to rest some more. While I was off to the side reading The Alt, a local magazine, I overheard the barista ask Christian and Azuré, “Hey, do you guys need cinder blocks?”
“Always.” For Christian and Azuré, no resource goes unused, no matter what it is. “We’ll take as many as you’re willing to give.”
The sun started to break through the clouds. Before meeting back up with Ember and his grandparents, the three of us traveled back to the Garden for some afternoon harvesting and watering. Christian showed and told me more about his tree project. He mentioned how he has experimented with tree grafting, essentially combining two species to grow together. He’ll also purposely keep a mix of pruned and unpruned trees to compare the effects and how each of them adapts to their conditions.
Azuré was cutting away at a group of large rhubarb stalks for a cake she was going to make in the morning. We talked about Ember and how his exposure to gardening at such a young age has helped his growth as a child. They showed me the row of zucchinis that Ember planted earlier in the season, and Christian mentioned that only after a few he started to do this all-in-one motion of dropping the seeds and then covering them with soil, using a swift swab with the back of his hand. The next day when he and I were in the car, I tried to quiz him on photos of fruits and vegetables, which he scored a hundred percent. “Rhubarb! Rhubarb!” he knew that one easily.
“It’s really cool and inspiring. He knows a lot more about plants than when I was his age,” Azuré mentioned as she kept harvesting. “Hopefully, our children will learn to carry on what we started.”
The sun was on its way down, so we linked up with the rest of the family at one of their friend’s houses along the Hudson river to catch the day’s final moments and drink beer and wine. We later departed for the evening as I was planning to stay at this home on the Hudson for the night while Christian, Az and MB headed back to their home. We said our temporary goodbyes, and Christian left me with one more simple, definitive sentence that stuck. “It’s a lifestyle.”
I woke to the sound of birds chirping at dawn and the river breeze coming through the bedroom window. I had a quick breakfast of toast with homemade peach jam that Yanni made himself and espresso brewed by Lynn. It was just cool enough outside for a hoodie, and Lynn and I walked the mile south to Christian and Azuré’s home.
They were finishing up their breakfast and Azuré was putting the finishing touches on her rhubarb cake, which was made vegan simply because she didn’t have any eggs. “Vegan by supply,” she called it. Azuré was also hard at work slow roasting chicken and making a rhubarb-based barbeque sauce for the much-anticipated Freedom Fest later that day, hosted by the Sanctuary For Independent Media.
The Freedom Fest, an annual celebration and community get-together featuring other local non-profits, is held a couple blocks north of the Garden in Freedom Square. The main stage and backdrop of Freedom Square was created by the community with the guidance and leadership of famous Philadelphia-based mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar as a gift to the neighborhood. Today’s festival was going to have plenty of food brought by the people of the community as well as from Unity House, who set up a five-foot long grill to grill up burgers and dogs. The festival also featured appearances by Troy Public Library, a bike giveaway by Troy Bike Rescue, WOOC FM 105.3, poetry readings by Troy’s youth, a performance by Brooklyn based rapper donfons and of course Collard City Growers, who would be teaching people how to plant trees and transplant flowers and herbs all around the perimeter of the Square.
I stayed at the kitchen table and kept Christian and Azuré company while Lynn went to play with Ember in the living room. When Azuré opened one of the drawers, we both noticed a couple of uncashed paychecks. I also spotted cash tips just lying around in various places around the home. This got me thinking about how much, or how little even, the importance of money when living a lifestyle that’s lived off of the land and off of the grid. They both explained to me that they find themselves receiving goods and services through trade rather than a fixed monetary price. Since Christian and Azuré both have skills ranging from bee hive removal to baking, butchery, carpentry and much more, they often get the things they need from those they have a relationship with by offering something they can provide in exchange for, say, watching Ember for the day or food scraps they can feed to their chickens. Christian reassured themselves, “As long as we’re not broke, we’re okay.”
The family does their weekly grocery shopping on these Saturday mornings downtown at the farmer’s market. They walked around with familiarity and ease, regulars in this city. Every few minutes, they’d say hello to people they knew. They were farmers, shoppers, cyclists and actors. Parents, kids and dogs. Denison Farm, where Azuré worked the day before, had set up shop at the farmer’s market. Ember and I probably ate an equal amount of their fresh strawberries that morning. Christian and Azuré knew one vendor who sold venison produced at her elk farm and they got a mix of sausage and steak. They also traded, bartered and negotiated for things, but not for items necessarily for sale at the market. For example, they had a deal with a juice vendor to receive their fruit and vegetable scraps so that it can be used as chicken feed.
We drove back to their home. Christian and Azuré were doing last minute Freedom Fest preparations, so I stayed with Ember out in the yard. The chickens were feeding on the freshly arrived food scraps, the crops were receiving some sun. It was still a Saturday, but there’s no structure, no scheduled rest and relaxation with a life lived this way. You take it when it’s presented, such as times like this. Summer days are long for a reason.
I drove with Christian and Azuré to the Garden to start transferring the wheelbarrows of wood chips, soil and baby trees a block north to Freedom Square. Christian had a few helpers, both young and old, to plant the trees along the perimeter of the Square while the others started to trickle in. The surrounding block, Christian mentioned, can be a rough one. Economic depression and violence have been recurring issues in Troy communities for some time. There have been bottles smashed onto the Collard City Grower lots, I noticed some indistinct tagging on some of the Garden’s signs and I was told of an instance a year ago where previous planted trees were uprooted from the ground. The streets can get hot in the summer, both figuratively and literally. Christian notices there is not a lot of street shade provided by vegetation and trees. He wonders whether planting more trees, “…might increase the health of the overall area,” if they continued their work. It reaffirmed my opinion of the man. Christian has no ulterior motives, he’s never in search to make a dollar for which has little value to him. He was as down to earth with those whom he was teaching how to make a ten, twenty-year investment in their community by doing something that’s often taken for granted: planting a tree.
The Fest was in full swing now. Everyone had a plate of delicious homemade barbeque, tacos, salads or sweets. The music was playing and it seemed as if the entire community had come out. A notable sight to see during the entire celebration was a woman from Troy Zero Waste volunteering to stand by the trash, recycling and compost bins with a trash-grabber properly assorting each discarded item into its appropriate receptacle. This annual gathering has gotten to the point in its popularity that it feels as if it were a holiday. From across the Square, I still saw Christian and Azuré working hard to get those plants in the ground. Yanni was my ride back south to the City, and the both of us had obligations the next day. I went over to say my final farewell and appreciation to the family. I mentioned to them earlier that I have a garden on my roof, so they graciously presented to me some heat-resilient plants to take back with me: sacred basil, anise hyssop and some wormwood.
“It’s a lifestyle,” but I feel like it’s much more than that. I’d go as far as to say that this way of life is an embodiment. It was the true definition of food sustainability. Producing an abundance of the organic fuel we need without exerting as much energy to grow it. Through learning, observing and building positive relationships, this family of three has understood what it takes in order to feed themselves and those around them. And that, I have found, is what this has truly been all about.
Photography by Stephen Troiano
The Garden is located at 3337 6th Ave, Troy, NY 12181
I’d like to express my sincere gratitude to Christian, Azuré and Ember for their incredible hospitality and warmth. To Lynn Walka and Yanni Grigoraskos for always making me feel like family. To Caty Schnack and Courtney Dixon for helping me make this story grammatically presentable. And to Reza Cristiàn for allowing and giving me a platform to share this and other stories before it. I love you all.